I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Oklahoma City Thunder has a “Big Three” now.
There’s no question what the biggest storyline surrounding the team this year is. Anyone with a pulse and a Twitter account has asked the question “How will Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony play together?” Thursday night’s 20-point victory over the Knicks may have begun to answer those questions, and the trio is undoubtedly the engine that will power the team all season.
But if you were to ask me who the one player was whose range of personal outcomes would have the greatest effect on the Thunder’s success this season, it would be Alex Abrines. He’s what cliche sportswriters might call…drumroll please…”The X-Factor.”
(Bit of a tangent, but I was curious so I looked up where the term “X-Factor” comes from. Am I the only one who doesn’t know this? According to the always-reliable, never-ever-wrong Yahoo Answers, it’s a reference to algebra. The “X” stands in for a variable, and if its value is high, then the values of all of the known quantities around it are high. That’s assuming we’re talking about addition or multiplication and not subtraction or division, but what the heck. The more you know!)
That’s exactly what Abrines is this season for the Thunder. Because really, what would a “bad” season look like for Russell Westbrook? 24 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds per game? He’s going to be productive. Same with George and Anthony, who will combine for 40+ points on any given night because that’s what they do.
But Abrines? He will be forced to either have a break out year, or fail spectacularly.
After averaging just 15.5 minutes per game last season as a rookie, he was the first one off the bench in Thursday night’s opener just five minutes in. And what did he proceed to do?
Abrines recorded 24 minutes on the night, good for fifth on the team and more than starter Andre Roberson. For those ready to yell about garbage time, he also had more minutes than Roberson in the tightly-contested first half.
Giving Abrines a significant role on the team is something that Billy Donovan seemed to be pushing all preseason, as I can remember one stretch in the third quarter of the final preseason game against the Nuggets where the supercharged offensive lineup of Westbrook-Abrines-George-Anthony-Adams was on the floor for an extended period of time. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, that was also the stretch where the Thunder built an insurmountable lead. At least for now, he’s set as the sixth man.
I’ll be honest, it seems like a little too much/too soon for the 24-year-old Spaniard. As a rookie, his contributions were less like a supporting actor and more like a special effect, akin to the part of the movie-going experience where you say “oh, that was neat” in the moment and then never think about again. Anything the Thunder got from him seemed like a bonus, not a building block.
Take Thursday night for example. After the immediate gratification of a corner three, Abrines spent the rest of the night disappearing into the flow of the game. He took four other shots, all threes, and missed them all. And the talk about his bulky new physique this season (20 pounds of PURE MUSCLE!) added up to three rebounds and zero free throw attempts.
On the other hand, you could say this role was a long time coming. Sam Presti had an eye on him at least as far back as the 2011 FIBA Under-18 Championships, where he won a gold medal, before drafting Abrines 32nd overall in 2013. Presti recruited him hard for years before eventually signing him to a multi-year deal last summer, after he was named the 2015-16 EuroLeague Rising Star.
Some middle-aged men fix up cars in their garage, some become obsessed with fantasy football; Sam Presti’s side project was Alex Abrines.
Even as a “Rising Star” for FC Barcelona, he only averaged 8.9 points per game. It’s difficult to find a time where he was ever a dominant force on the basketball court. Whether it was in grainy YouTube videos then, or watching him last season with the Thunder on TV, most of Abrines’ skillset was…whatever. Decent athlete? Decent defender for a rookie (read: bad)? Decent at putting the ball on the floor and sharing it around? I guess.
But the shooting, oh, the shooting. This man can shoot the cover off the ball. And in today’s NBA that’s much of what matters. In a lot of ways, Abrines’ most important statistic is 1993, the year he was born, which allows him to play in this crazy pace-and-space era.
What does all this mean for the Thunder this season?
It would be easy and convenient to say “it would be nice to see him improve and become a more complete player” and bla bla bla. Duh. But Abrines blossoming into a stud is just not going to happen. The team has three superstars, who are going to consume most of the touches, as well they should. At least one of them will be on the floor at all times, meaning everyone else will have to exist within their framework.
That doesn’t discount Abrines’ impact on the team. He has a role to play in the wars to come, if I may be so bold as to quote Game of Thrones. And really, he can do it by just existing.
In Thursday night’s game it would seem that Abrines didn’t really do much, as I’ve already covered, but his box score plus/minus (for all of its flaws) was +23. Not too shabby. His shooting ability causes a “gravitational pull,” a term that’s often associated with Steph Curry, that draws defenders closer to him to stop him from shooting. Defenders chasing wildly after shooters is almost a primal instinct on the court (as the only white player on many an AAU team I know this quite well), even when there are bigger scoring threats on the floor. The added floor spacing Abrines provides will never show up in box scores, and frankly he shouldn’t even take a lot of credit for just standing there and spotting up, but it allows the other guys to operate most effectively. When he catches the ball in space, he just needs to do what he was born to do and shoot that thing.
From there, it’s all about what he can handle on the defensive end. He will never be able to fill the shoes of Andre Roberson, the man he will often come in for, and won’t be able to handle the opposing team’s star player to make life easier for the surrounding stars, but if can be a defensive zero (that is, not plus or minus) that may be good enough.
How well he does those two things will drastically affect the outcome of the Thunder’s season.
So yeah, Alex Abrines is the “X-Factor.” But I’m less of a fan of Simon Cowell and more a fan of Charlie Day, so I think I’m going to call him “The Wildcard.”